Review: Steelheart

Steelheart Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun, yet juvenile, action-adventure romp. I never developed any kind of empathy with the characters. David, our narrator, is 18 but reads more like 13. Cody is that irritating guy at the party who is always "on". Each of the characters is a cliche, but with the volume turned up. I would have loved to see some depth or intrigue to these folks, but that may be asking too much from a YA title. Speaking of YA, I am going to highly recommend this book to my 11 year old. I think he would love it. It is fast paced and full of action with big heroes and bigger villains. There are a few moral dilemmas that are lightly touched on, but they do not bog down the story in such a way that a young reader might be put off.

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Review: Animal Farm

Animal Farm Animal Farm by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A timeless tale of the corrupting power of power. This is clearly an allegory to the Bolshevik Revolution, but I think it could be applied equally well to many situations where one subjugator is usurped by another. The pigs succeed in achieving and maintaining their power by controlling the information permitted to the 'lower animals'. It is an excellent reminder that we must always be wary when we allow others to lead us.

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Review: The Other Side of Dawn

The Other Side of Dawn The Other Side of Dawn by John Marsden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The conclusion of the Tomorrow series is fully of action set pieces and closure for our pack of war torn teens. Ellie and her crew are met by a kiwi facilitator who provides them with the tools they will need to turn their mischief up to 11.

I enjoyed seeing how the tale wound down, but I also get the sense that the author was hesitant to inject real grit into the story that could have made it that much better. Perhaps it is due to the YA target audience that the atrocities that Ellie is exposed to are given a soft focus. Perhaps, as this tale is told by Ellie as she collects her notes from the war, the author is simply emulating what he believes she would decide to note, and what she would decide to omit. In the end, I'm left feeling an absence of texture from the story, and I think it keeps me from truly feeling like I've walked in their shoes.

That all said, this entire series has been fun, light reading. It could easily be turned into a sort of television series. If you've enjoyed The Hunger Games series, you might enjoy this one as well.

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Review: The Forever War

The Forever War The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Weird things happen when you start traveling at near to the speed of light. If you were to get into a hypothetical ship and travel at very close to the speed of light, making laps around the sun for a year, then landed back on earth, you might find that the earth had actually made 15 trips around the sun in that "same time". This is time dilation, and is something that Einstein introduced the world to as part of his theory of relativity.

Now, imagine going to war where you spend time on a ship traveling at near light speeds in order to reach the combat zone and return. What might be a handful of years to you in your own subjective time would be decades or even centuries to those you left behind. Would you be able to stay connected to the people you left? Would you still feel any bond?

This is the concept behind The Forever War. It is ostensibly a commentary on the Vietnam War and the reaction of soldiers involved in and returning from that conflict. I've never been involved in war, so I can't really identify with that sensation. I can say that this story left me with a bit of empathy for returning soldiers as well as anyone else who might find themselves out of sync with the modern world. We're living in a period of dramatic and dynamic change, and it is easy to feel like an outsider as the world rapidly shifts.

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Review: Ack-Ack Macaque

Ack-Ack Macaque Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As ludicrous as the jacket cover blurb for this novel may sound, this is a really fun story. It is a really interesting mix of cyber punk, steam punk, pulp, and noir. The cast of characters is very diverse and interesting. Merovich is a reluctant prince of an alternate history / future where France joined the UK. Julie is an idealistic freedom fighter bent on liberating sentient AIs. Victoria is a former journalist who survived a terrible crash at great physical cost and has redefined herself as a fighter. The titular Ack Ack Macaque is a simian fighter pilot unaware that he is a character in a World War II video game. Together, these character's lives intertwine as they work to uncover a sinister plot that could lead to the end of life as we know it.

Due to the diverse mix of genres this book touches on, I could easily recommend it to any number of readers. I think anyone can pick it up and enjoy it, but I would particularly call it out to folks that have enjoyed works by Paolo Bacigalupi, Ernest Cline, Daniel Suarez, or Ramez Naam.

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Review: Armada

Armada Armada by Ernest Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recognize when I am being pandered to. I don't mind being pandered to sometimes, especially if it is from a trusted source. Ernest Cline earned that trust with Ready Player One. Unfortunately he chose to completely cache in on that trust with Armada.

Have you seen the movie The Last Starfighter? That is essentially the plot of this book with a few minor tweaks. Slathered on like icing on a boutique cupcake are 80's pop culture references. It is like an episode of The Chris Farley Show sketch from SNL. "Do you remember that? Yeah, that was awesome!" Ad nauseum.

This was a quick beach read for me that hit on my interests, but unfortunately didn't rise to my expectations. The characters are uninteresting and I never really felt a sense of suspense. The character of Lex just is utterly ridiculous to me as she continuously supplies wondrous technical escapes for Zach. You could certainly read worse material than Armada, but if you were hoping for a worthy follow up to Ready Player One, this is not it.

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Review: The Library at Mount Char

The Library at Mount Char The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is dark. This book is ridiculous. This book is very good!

A powerful being referred to as "Father" adopts / abducts 12 children to become the librarians for his library. By becoming his librarians they become absolute masters of their subject matter. Father then mysteriously disappears, and the children are cast out from the library. They set about trying to find Father, find a way back into the library, and protect the library from opposing forces that will try to take it from then.

Over the course of the story we learn of the terrible techniques father has used to motivate the children to learn. These tortures have twisted the children. It reminds me very much of the children in Bitter Seeds.

I highly recommend this tale, but with a word of warning concerning the very dark nature of the tortures these children both endure and inflict on each other.

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Review: The Night is For Hunting

The Night is For Hunting The Night is For Hunting by John Marsden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This series is a bit of a guilty pleasure with me. The stories are neither challenging nor innovative. Even so, I've enjoyed the tale of these kids from Wirrawee as they tackle the challenges of surviving as rebels in their invaded country. I'm nearly to the end of the series now, and I'm glad to see that the characters are showing something like development. That's not to say that all of these kids are growing. While Ellie and Homer are showcased in this episode, Kevin is as useless as ever.

In this episode the group takes on the challenges of supporting some of the feral children they were accosted by in Stratton. The young children aren't eager to be under the leadership of older kids, and this presents difficult situations for Ellie and her friends. They must struggle not just to survive on their own but to also cope with these youngsters who at times work directly against them.

I'm excited to see how this is all going to wind up in the next book.

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Review: Mort

Mort Mort by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Imagine Death is a real creature, anthropomorphised such that you could have a conversation with him. Would he enjoy his job? What rules must he operate by? Now, imagine for a moment that he takes you under his wing as an apprentice. This is the story of Mort. Young Mort goes looking for an apprenticeship and after being passed over by everyone else in town, is chosen by death. What follows is a humorous tale full of all of the usual tropes you would expect. While this story is set in the Discworld, you could easily choose this as your first book in the series as it only mentions other characters in passing and you lose nothing by missing those references. As with the other books in this series I think this is a fine way to pass the time, say, on the beach or on a long drive. It is not profound literature, but instead a whimsical, lighthearted tale.

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Review: Burning For Revenge

Burning For Revenge Burning For Revenge by John Marsden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After being disappointed in the previous book, I'm glad to see Marsden to return to previous form. This episode picks up with the band of teens back in Hell, licking their wounds from their previous failures. The pace quickly picks up with solid action and tension throughout. The relationship between Lee and Ellie takes center stage here while the remaining characters continue to play supporting and mostly unchanging roles.

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Review: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm enormously conflicted on how to review this book. On the one hand, Perdido street station is incredibly imaginative. There are some really interesting ideas and themes, and a veritable Henson show of humanoid characters. I imagine that playing paper-and-pencil RPGs with a young Mieville would have been fantastically entertaining. The city of New Crobuzon is imagined in grotesque and vivid detail. We learn of a city that is as much a alive as any of the flesh and blood characters.

What Perdido Street offers in fanciful imagination, however, it lacks in compelling storytelling. I checked this book out from my local library, and after two weeks of stubbornly persisting I was barely a hundred pages in. Even so, I was struggling to find the thread of the story. Sure, I'd been introduced to some characters of mild interest and I was learning of their motivations, but I wasn't interested. A second checkout and I pushed to get myself past the 300 page mark where it finally, FINALLY, started to produce something of a plot. I finished the book on a third checkout mostly because I felt invested at that point.

I'm at once excited to talk to other readers about some of the truly novel concepts found here, but also wary of sounding as though I'm recommending this as a good read. I think there are some readers out there who will enjoy the endless detail and creativity of the characters and setting of New Crobuzon. I think there are far more readers who will find this story bizarre and unapproachable.

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Review: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me all summer, but I finished reading The Graveyard Book to my children. This was not for lack of interest though, just lots of competition for my children's time.

The Graveyard Book tells the story of Nobody Owens, a boy whose family was killed when he was a baby and he was taken in by the souls resting at the nearby graveyard. Nobody, or Bod for short, grows up among the dead. Along the way he meets some interesting characters and has an opportunity to mete out justice to his family's killer.

I love the way Gaiman writes the dialogue for each character. I'm not much of a read-aloud person, so it was especially welcome to find that characters had easy and unique speech patterns to pick up, from Irish to Scottish, from whiny to haunting. Each character had a unique voice that my children could pick out even without the story prompting as to who the speaker is.

My kids loved the story too! This made it so rewarding to read it to them. Even with long spans between sessions they could easily recall what Bod was last doing, who he was encountering, and they were eager to find out what would happen next.

Thank you, Neil Gaiman, for crafting a story that is now woven into the fabric of my relationship with my children.

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Review: Supply Limited, Act Now

Supply Limited, Act Now
Supply Limited, Act Now by Helen Marshall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My friend Pepper tipped me off to the Escape Pod podcast, and I've been enjoying the selection of short sci-fi stories they provide. "Supply Limited, Act Now" involves a group of adolescents coming of age at the height of World War II. Each of the children is struggling to deal with their slipping grip on the innocence of their childhood while also confronting the brutality, uncertainty, and fear of a world at war. It's a very nice piece and I'd easily recommend it to anyone with a bit of spare time for reading.

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Review: Darkness, Be My Friend

Darkness, Be My Friend
Darkness, Be My Friend by John Marsden

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've enjoyed this series, but this isn't a terribly strong entry. So little happens with regard to the overall story arc that you could probably skip it entirely and be just fine.

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Review: Equal Rites

Equal Rites
Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With Pratchett's recent passing I was motivated to try another discworld book. Equal Rites is set on the same works as established in the first two books, but deals with entirely new characters. You could easily jump into the series right here and not feel lost. The story follows Esk, a girl on a mission to become the world's first female wizard. The table is full of Pratchett's usual with and humor, but I was happy to find that it stayed fairly focused on telling the story rather than getting side tracked by zaniness. I did enjoy this book and would recommend it for a beach read, but it is ultimately forgettable.

As a side note, the digital copy I read from my library was flawed. The last 50 pages appeared early, so I wound up reading the book in the order beginning, end, middle. This was a petty big detractor in my ability to enjoy the book. I am not sure if this is a problem only with my library's digital copy, or if this edition is just flawed.

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Review: Golden Son

Golden Son
Golden Son by Pierce Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Continuing the tale of Darrow, Golden Son sees him graduating from the sandbox that is the Institute to the solar system of political machinations. Golden Son ratchets up both the complicated ambitions of each of the golden families as well as the diverse relationships between the characters. Even so, the action elements are retained.

As with Red Rising, this is still essentially a medieval fantasy novel under the guise of space opera. Battle sequences involve lances and swords, but we do see some larger fleet interactions as well.

One criticism I have is that the author often uses the trick of some surprise element of knowledge or capability that Darrow has that allows him to win a battle or defeat an enemy, yet we as readers were never privy to it in advance.

Overall, I'm enjoying this series and I will look forward to reading the third installment when it is released. If you enjoyed the first book I think it is definitely worth your while to pick up this second in the series.

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Review: Red Rising

Red Rising
Red Rising by Pierce Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Red Rising came highly recommended to me. It draws comparisons to a number of works that I've really enjoyed: [b:The Name of the Wind|186074|The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)|Patrick Rothfuss||2502879], [b:Ender's Game|375802|Ender's Game (The Ender Quintet, #1)|Orson Scott Card||2422333], and [b:The Hunger Games|2767052|The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)|Suzanne Collins||2792775] to name a few. The story is set on a future Mars where society has been divided into castes identified by color. The golds are the elite of society. They are superior in every way to the remainder of society, and they maintain a firm grip on their leadership. Conversely, the reds are the base of society. The reds work in mines, harvesting Helium 3 as party of the effort to terraform the surface of the planet so that it may later be colonized. The protagonist, Darrow, is a red. He is quicker than most reds, and his quickness allows him to pilot the drills that require deft operation to avoid killing the operator (and his crew) deep in the mines of the planet. Darrow has been told a lie, and we read of his transformation to something more so that he can challenge the lie.

I love dystopian novels, and that naturally leads me to enjoy this story. There are a number of things I really enjoyed here, but also some minor gripes that I feel prevented me from giving this book 5 stars.

The action sequences are many and gripping. This book is a great thrill ride.

I love the intrigue and subterfuge. Who can Darrow trust, and for how long?

Darrow is plunged into a future combat school. They are divided into teams and given the task of capturing the banner of their opponents. Their weapons are pikes, swords, bows, and arrows. Even our current army doesn't train with these weapons. I understand that this is a style choice meant to evoke the nobility of the knights of the round table, but it provides a bit of cognitive dissonance to me. Where are the guns?

Darrow is superman. Yes, he has some trials and tribulations. He suffers and fails at times. However, it is very difficult for me to believe that with just a few months training and massive modifications to his body that he becomes a master at disguising his own past as well as both physically and mentally superior to his peers. It seems that there would have been some very easy times to discover his red roots, such as when he sings the full verse of Eo's death song to Mustang. Presumably his ring was on at this time. Yet this is of no concern. Instead, his use of the single word bloodydamn to Apollo as he kills him is the big threat.

A lack of noble challengers. Everyone who opposes Darrow at the university is clearly a bad person, or else they quickly fall to him and join his band. Titus the mad tyrant abuses his enemies as well as his own tribe. The Jackal is certifiably mad in addition to being assisted by the proctors. Not one challenger of merit who seriously vies against him. I think it would have been very interesting to see how Darrow dealt with a noble opponent rather than the stark contrast we saw.

I would definitely recommend this book. Even though I spent more words on my gripes than my likes, those gripes are really rather minor. This book feels as though it continuously accelerates, building momentum from a slow start to screaming across the finish line, ragged and tattered from the race.

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Review: Lock In

Lock In
Lock In by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed Lock In, and I think it would appeal to a wide range of readers. Scalzi has a talent for writing sci-fi in a way that is warm and relatable. A good comparison for this book is [b:The Peripheral|20821159|The Peripheral|William Gibson||40167043] by William Gibson. Both deal with similar motifs: imagine a world where people can project their consciousness into a machine and interact in the word via the machine. Both involve a murder mystery. Gibson writes in a style that evokes the cool and the mystique of these future advances, as well as the sub-cultures that evolve around them. He writes in a way that requires you to give his words your absolute focus, and usually a re-reading is required before the entire story resolves itself for you. Gibson's writing keeps you constantly off balance, fully aware that the world you are reading about is alien to yours. Scalzi, on the other hand, writes in a matter of fact fashion that feels comfortable and familiar. You quickly forget that the people interacting in a conversation might all be machines acting as avatars for the people behind them. Both styles appeal to me, but I think Scalzi's work is something that I can more easily recommend to a variety of readers. If I had any complaint about this story it might be that everything ties together just a little too neatly at the end. Crimes are messy affairs, and to see everything wrap up with a pretty little bow that you could see coming well in advance is a bit of a let down. Still, the story was engaging and turned into quite the quick read. I'd recommend Lock In to just about anyone.

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Review: Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book has a lot going for it, but never finds a way to pull it together in a cogent way. There are so many elements that interest me: technology, programming, mysticism, hidden worlds, magic, dystopia, rebellion. Even so, I can't recommend this book.

The first two hundred pages do a decent job of setting the stage. Alif is a teenager who manages a social darknet where dissidents against the state can freely discuss their political views without threat of retribution. Alif is not a participant in these discussions, merely a facilitator, but he doesn't harbor any love for the State. The State has developed a powerful weapon for sussing out the source of these darknets and exposing their contributors referred to as the Hand.

Alif is a petty, unlikable boy. He is disrespectful and brash. When he is rebuffed by his girlfriend who has been betrothed to another man, he flies into a rage. He directs his rage into writing a virus that can detect the online behavior of his ex and prevent her from accessing his systems. He isn't quite sure how it works, but it works.

Let's stop here for a moment, as this was my first whiff of danger that the story was going to be a real turn off for me at times. I am a programmer. I've been doing this for decades. The descriptions of programming and how computers work in this story are more than just nonsense; they are ridiculous. Writing code does not work anything like what is described in these pages. If you are a coder you will likely find yourself at a point in this book where you must put your hand over your eyes to keep them from completely rolling out of your skull. It only gets worse from here. At one point Alif is in a fit of code writing where he goes into a daze and pictures himself riding a "column of data into the sky as he looks down at a crumbling base". Good grief. When Alif awakens from his stupor he finds that the PC he was coding on his literally melted to slag (conjure to mind that awful Sandra Bullock movie The Net). It was here that I nearly put the book down and decided not to finish, but the allure of the mystical jinn in the story enticed me to move on. Without beating this horse too much, suffice it to say that the writing on technology was poorly researched at best.

Alif's struggles change him as a person. By the end of the book he is humbled by his experiences as he sees the start of the Arab Spring (a bit of prescience on the author's part here, as the book pre-dates the rebellions throughout the middle east). Even so, there is still a lot to dislike. The story finishes a total mess. Hundreds of rioters rush up a staircase into an apartment for no particular reason. Alif has a final confrontation with the big bad of the story where they get into semantic discussion of their opposing views (keeping in mind there is a riot going around them, within this apartment).

Do not read this book if you know anything about programming. You will hate it. Do not read this book if you are a feminist. The women in the story are set dressing at best, and targets of derision throughout. Honestly, I'm at a loss at who I would recommend this to. It is a YA book dressed to belie that categorization. Its failings far outweigh its merits.

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Review: The Peripheral

The Peripheral
The Peripheral by William Gibson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

William Gibson isn't for everyone. His books don't hold your hand or spoon feed you the world he has crafted. Instead, you are thrust into am ongoing conversation as if you had been there all along. This can be disorienting and confusing, and for a lot of readers will be a turn off. I love it, though, and I think it gives his novels a lot of re-read value.

The Peripheral is probably the strongest example of this as it has two worlds for you to come to grips with. The first world is that of Burton and Flynne; a near future with rampant corruption, a drug driven Maker Bot economy, and a massive power gap between the wealthy and the poor. The second world is seventy years further into the future of the first. An event referred to as the Jackpot has the left the world in a technologically advanced state, but also...antiseptic? The world is clean and tidy to the point of being without soul.

The core of this story is a murder mystery. Flynne has witnessed a murder and must survive long enough to identify the murderer, who is bending his incredible resources in am attempt to eliminate Flynne before she has that opportunity. That would be interesting enough, but now compound that with the concept that the witness and murderer are living in two disparate timelines, where the future has access to life-like full body avatars and absolutely no qualms about destroying Flynne's alternate timeline. The concepts are fascinating, and I feel the effort of grokking the two worlds definitely pays off.

I highly recommend The Peripheral to any Gibson or SciFi fan.

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Jade Mason